8 Sqn Deploy on Op SEA GUARDIAN 20-5

In September 2020, a team from 8 Squadron deployed to Trapani on the Sicilian coast to take part in Op SEA GUARDIAN.

SEA GUARDIAN is an enduring NATO commitment that provides airborne support to maritime units operating within the Mediterranean Sea with the aim of locating and reporting Vessels of Interest to NATO Maritime Command. 8 Squadron last completed an iteration of this commitment in 2018, so it was a welcome change from the schedule of Eastern European NATO assurance missions and an opportunity for the Squadron to dust off its deployable capability.

As with most frontline squadrons/units, successfully deploying during this pandemic has generated an abundance of roadblocks to navigate. Not only at an administrative level (is deploying in the best interests of all personnel?) but also whether it genuinely affects and enhances the ability to project air power and meet all standing requirements. Thankfully, due to the hard work by all those involved in the planning process – no stone was left unturned and when we had finished turning the stones, they were always wiped down with disinfectant – just a little COVID humour there.

After ensuring all personnel and equipment were suitably cleared to deploy in accordance with the strict COVID-19 restrictions, an A400M from Brize Norton and an E-3D from Waddington successfully arrived in Trapani safe and sound, to be met with a weekend of sunshine and Sicilian cuisine. However, “Op Bronze” lasted for all of 36 hours before preparations had to begin for a busy week of operational flying.

Op SEA GUARDIAN is a NATO Maritime Command led operation. As a result, 8 Squadron were required to be in constant communication between Maritime Command, Combined Air Operations Centre Torrejon and the supporting Naval Maritime Task Group. This ensured that all proposed events were quickly approved by the chain of command and actioned by the subordinate air and maritime units. By following J2 reports generated by both RAF Waddington and Maritime Command Intelligence, 8 Squadron were able to further improve the efficiency of the system and narrow the search radius to focus on an area south of Malta known as the Hurd Bank. The Hurd Bank is a vast area between the Libyan Coast and Malta, widely used as a legitimate shipping route but also for nefarious organisations attempting to smuggle illegal substances or weapons and people trafficking ventures.

Internally, onboard the E3-D Sentry, close coordination is required between all members of the Mission Crew. Whilst this in itself is common practice, during Sea Guardian all Mission crew (regardless of their specialisation) were required to operate as one surface tracking team – the split between Weapons Control and Surveillance being, temporarily, redundant. This is an unfamiliar working practice; especially when compared to routine NATO Assurance Missions or High Activity Air to Air serials where the various sections support each other but have vastly differing duties. By temporarily casting aside the historical divide, the crew were able to complete the tasks required far more efficiently. Efficiency = Time = Flex for a post flight pizza. It’s a no brainer. Note: who needs a full weapons control team anyway? Isn’t Sentry a surveillance platform first?

For some though, Sea Guardian was their first operational deployment with the E3-D component. As always, this provides invaluable experience that routine flying within the United Kingdom cannot replicate. The mission requirement provided vital real-world lessons as to how an Airborne Command and Control platform can successfully liaise with a naval task group to achieve significant maritime policing effect in the face of a vast geographical search area. Feedback from the lead surface vessel, Spanish Frigate ALVARO DE BAZAN, reinforced how vital these lessons were. As ever the proof is in the pudding, and six vessels of interest were successfully intercepted thanks to the combination of air search and surface intervention.

Sadly, as with all tight flying schedules, an inevitable technical issue prevented 8 Squadron from completing a mid-week mission. However, turning a fail into a win, this proved the use of the Priming Equipment Pack which had been sent out in advance by A400M from RAF Brize Norton. With this deployable store of technical parts, 8 Squadron Engineering completed the repair task with time to spare and ensured the remainder of the deployment was completed with no further interruption.

During these difficult times, when not only COVID but budgetary limitations reduce military flying, the time spent abroad was a welcome change of pace. Not only for 8 Squadron but for the plethora of supporting sections who keep the wheels turning; notably Mission Support Flight, Survival and Equipment and Logistics.

Upon returning to the UK, 8 Squadron reflected on a successful week. With five out of six flights completed and all aircraft, equipment and personnel recovered with no fuss – the remaining future of the component looks positive, continuing at readiness to deploy and offer significant support to those who require it. Until news on E-7 Wedgetail transits from rumour to fact, 8 Squadron remain “Everywhere Unbounded”. A Cringeworthy note to end on? Perhaps. But there’s always space for unwavering optimism and a sense of humour by Sentry Dispersal.